Wildlife conservation: complacency and certainty

This blog originated as a presentation at the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Biodiversity conference one year ago in October 2017: Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity. Originally, Professor Pat Monaghan and I examined complacency and uncertainty in wildlife conservation today. But as we wrote it, we realised the uncertainty was in fact a certainty….

Scotland’s image in the rest of the world is very much formulated on its wild landscape and abundant and ubiquitous wildlife. Yet this image sits uncomfortably with a number of assessments on the health of wildlife and ecosystems in Scotland: Scotland’s National Ecosystem Assessment (2014), Scotland’s position on the Biodiversity Intactness Index (Science 2016), or the State of Nature assessment (2016). In all these measures our native wildlife is neither abundant nor ubiquitous. Furthermore, Scotland has what is considered world leading legislation for wildlife.  Yet this legislative framework is not delivering nature conservation. And this is in the context of increasing uncertainty- the physical uncertainty of climate change and the political uncertainty of Brexit. What needs to change if we are to restore and maintain our wild landscapes, and their wildlife?

What’s happening today?

The State of Nature report (2016) illustrated that in Scotland

Over the long term, 54% of vascular plant species declined & 46% increased.  Same over the short term.
39% of butterfly species declined & 61% increased over the long term. Over the short term, 26% of species declined & 74% increased.
Over the long term, 44% of bird species declined & 56% increased. Over the short term, 54% declined & 46% increased.
Of nearly 6,000 species known to occur in Scotland that have been assessed using modern Red List criteria, 520 (9%) are at risk of extinction from GB.

46,000 species live in Scotland: only 2.3% of them (1,079 species) were assessed for this report. Of that 2.3% assessed against IUCN criteria, 9% are at risk of extinction. The real rate of extinction is unknown.
What is more, this risk isn’t evenly spread: some species groups are declining faster than others.

Let’s look at butterflies for example, for which we have an excellent data set in the UK: the 2000 Atlas of Butterflies in the UK was produced by 20,000 recorders who gathered 15,000,000 records. These data illustrated that over the previous 40 years 71% of butterflies had declined. More recently, in 2011, 72% of butterfly species had decreased in abundance over the previous 10 years and 76% decreased in distribution or abundance.

Elsewhere in the extinction debate, data are reflecting that 54% of birds have declined and 28% of plants have declined. There are 33% fewer butterflies than 10 years ago. However, of those species monitored, invertebrates are bearing the brunt of the extinction crisis.

Does this matter? Are all species equal and are all species valuable? When are species valueless? What about the invaluable? Does ‘value’ even matter?

One such example are the fungi. Fungi, the fifth kingdom, is a mix of poorly understood, little appreciated, often misinterpreted organisms with a very wide range of morphologically, anatomies, sexual and asexual activities and life-styles brought together by a unique but common use of food sources. They are indeed fundamental to the well-being of the planet especially in their ability to decay complex substances and take part in innumerable symbiotic interactions with other organisms both plant and animal, especially mycorrhizas which ensure the health and well-being of our forests, the lungs of earth. Their activities have been enhanced for the production of both essential and luxury foods and drinks and many pharmaceuticals and other medical applications. (Roy Watling, 2017 pers. Comm.)

Yet even just their role in woodlands, as mycelia providing access to nutrients for trees, should not be underestimated. Around 90% of land plants rely on a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi for survival. One mycorrhizal fungus is the chanterelle, often found in birch woods. This particular mushroom cannot be cultivated and birch trees use it to gather nutrients. Can we place a value on that? In 2017, a kilo of chanterelles cost roughly £35.00 per kilo; how much of the value of a piece of birch or beech does a chanterelle contribute? In 2013, one cubic metre of birch and beech was valued at £1120- £1341 (Scottish Wood Ltd): it’s impossible to tell what percentage of that value is owed to mycorrhizal fungi, except for the fact that without these fungi, trees cannot grow. And then, how much is the thrill of finding a chanterelle worth? It is invaluable.
If we try and value species, does that benefit nature conservation? It is one element underpinning the ecosystem approach to nature conservation. There is an argument that the ecosystem approach runs the risk of commodifing habitats and species. For example, Kleijn et al (2015) have calculated the value of wild bee pollination at $3,000 per hectare of insect-pollinated agricultural land. They also show that of 20,000 known bee species, c.2% pollinated 80 % of crops. Does this mean that the remaining 98% of bees are valueless? No.
Instead other research has shown that apparent duplication of function within ecosystems is essential to ecosystem health. This apparent duplication enables other species to take over ecosystem roles when more abundant species decline. This can safeguard ecosystem functions and ecosystem health.

What about edge of range species? How important are they? Should we allow edge of range species to go extinct? If we take the example of the red billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), this bird has been studied since 1981 by Scottish Chough Study group from Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities and SCRI. The red billed chough has a wide temperate distribution and is on the edge of its northern range in Scotland. It is also used as a key indicator of health of pastoral agricultural systems. Today, it is threatened by climate and land-use change in UK: of these threats, land use is probably more important. Land use changes on Islay for example, including the loss of cattle and an increase in barley growing have happened alongside the declines in chough populations. The issues the bird populations suffer from include blindness, resulting from inbreeding, parasites, food shortages from land use and climate change. This has resulted in emergency supplementary feeding programmes.
This provides good scientific basis available to form appropriate policy on land use. However, policy makers are slow to take action. While SNH have now funded population viability analysis at Aberdeen University, what is clearly needed are scientifically informed decisions and a comprehensive land use strategy.

Another example is climate change and tree diseases, which are knocking out entire species eg elm and now perhaps ash. These alkaline barked trees are home to some of our rarest and most diverse bryophyte populations. With Scotland being home to 60% of the European Bryophyte flora and 5% of the global flora, the impact of these habitat losses is significant. Should we perhaps accept therefore that sycamore, while it brings some ecological issues, represents nonetheless a habitat in which some of these bryophyte communities could survive?

So what are we doing?
Scotland has what could be considered world leading legislation for wildlife through our Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and our Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act (2011). There is yet further potential to lead in nature conservation through the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy (2004), its Challenge 2020 roadmap (2013) and the Scottish Land Use Strategy (2011) and the Pollinator Strategy (2017). Yet this legislative framework is not delivering nature conservation. And this is in the context of increasing uncertainty- the physical uncertainty of climate change and the political uncertainty in Brexit.

What needs to change and what lessons can we learn and implement from elsewhere in the world?
We need to value the invaluable. And we need to value species diversity in a global context. We perhaps need to value non-native species where they fill vacant ecological niches but we still need to identify future ecologically damaging non-native species. We need to halt ongoing extinctions and declines in order to conserve and restore ecologically robust ecosystems. And to do all this, we absolutely need to implement effective and robust policy.
Even the World Economic Forum has realised we need to do more and change our approach.

A key mechanism to start to achieve this is galvanising public and building the political will to act. We need to build up ambition and investment in our environment to protect Scotland’s habitats and wildlife for generations yet unborn. Scotland’s Environment Strategy may pave the way for some progress – but only if it is able to address the real issues facing nature conservation and only if it, alongside Scotland’s existing legislation, is implemented.